By DAVID BRINN
Playing with Rami Fortis and Yirmy Kaplan in the 1990s didn't prepare Israeli guitarist Oren Kaplan for the enveloping musical and physical presence of Eugene Hutz, the possessed front man of their celebrated New York gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello.
"Eugene was playing with a trio in a small club in Brooklyn. It was awesome. I went up to talk to him and we became friends. A year later, I joined the band," the 43-year-old Kaplan said from his New York city home, recalling the events that led to the formation a decade ago of the currently sprawling, nine-member band that has taken the indie rock world by a storm.
Gogol Bordello's multi-ethnic mix, focusing on Hutz's Ukrainian roots, but encompassing members from Ethiopia, Scotland and Ecuador, and incorporating gypsy violins, festive accordions, sounds like The Clash if they had grown up on borscht. Its music and theatrical stage show captures the experiences of the New York immigrant diaspora through a mix of debauchery, humor and costumes with a flair for the absurd.
That combination along with their acclaimed 2007 album Super Taranta! has propelled the band to mainstream success with spots on David Letterman and Conan O'Brien, and performances at major festivals, including Lollapalooza, Coachella and Bonnaroo in the US and Reading and Leeds in the UK. In addition, in 2007, Hutz and violinist Sergey Ryabtsev joined Madonna on stage at the London Live Earth concert performing "La Isla Bonita / Lela Pala Tute."
Kaplan, who left his home in Givatayim in 1996, is looking forward to returning to his native land for Gogol's two shows here next week - December 19th at the Hangar and December 20th at the Barby club, both in Tel Aviv.
"We just came back from Mexico and South America, where we played in Chile and Argentina," he said, adding that Hutz's recent relocation to Brazil has not complicated the band's dynamics.
"It doesn't have much of an impact on the band, because during the eight months a year we're on tour, it really doesn't matter where anyone's living," said Kaplan.
While the band is still riding high on the coattails of Super Taranta's success, Kaplan is looking ahead to the new year and a new album of songs to perform.
"I like to play the newer songs, they're more fun no matter what the style. We've got a new record coming out in February, and for me those songs are the freshest," he said, adding that the extreme musical diversity each member brings to the mix is the key to Gogol's appeal.
"That's what makes the band what it is - all the different styles and flavors that each member brings to it from all over the world. That's where we get our strength from."
Part vaudeville, part mosh pit, and 100% electrifying, a Gogol Bordello show shouldn't be missed.
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